Legal Memorandum: "Crashworthiness" Design Defect Claim

Issue: What are the elements of a ‘Crashworthiness’ design-defect claim and what are the applicable laws regarding proof of defect in cases involving small tractors and riding mowers?

Area of Law: Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Negligent design; Manufacturer's liability; Small tractors and riding mowers
Jurisdiction: Federal, New York
Cited Cases: 350 N.Y.S.2d 644; 384 N.Y.S.2d 115; 305 N.E.2d 769
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 09/01/2011

The crashworthiness doctrine, (or its variants, known as the “enhanced injury” or “second-impact” doctrines), is recognized by New York courts.*FN1  Under these doctrines, when the defective design or manufacture of a product does not actually cause an accident but instead increases the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries, manufacturers may be liable for injuries over and above those which otherwise would have resulted.  Butler v. Pittway Corp., 770 F.2d 7, 9-10 (2d Cir. 1985) (although allegedly defective smoke detectors did not cause fire, homeowners are entitled to claim alleged failure of smoke detectors caused injuries that were over and above those which would have otherwise occurred); Bolm v. Triumph Corp., 33 N.Y.2d 151, 305 N.E.2d 769, 350 N.Y.S.2d 644 (1973) (although allegedly defective motorcycle design did not cause accident, injured motorcyclist could claim the negligent design of the motorcycle contributed to and enhanced his injuries).

In a crashworthiness case, “the standards for imposing liability for such unreasonably dangerous design defects are thus general negligence principles.”  Bolm, 33 N.Y.2d at 649.  Therefore, as in any other design defect case, a product is “defective” if it is not reasonably safe and is a substantial cause of plaintiff’s injuries.  Voss, 59 N.Y.2d at 108; see Mincallef v. Miehle Co., 39 N.Y.2d 376, 386, 348 N.E.2d 571, 577-78, 384 N.Y.S.2d 115 (1976).

Under the Mincallef balancing test, New York courts hold that the question of whether a particular product is not reasonably safe or […]

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